Over the last eight days I've spent roughly 45 hours inside the world of Red Dead Redemption 2, playing as Arthur Morgan, a member of the Dutch Van der Linde gang. It's a time in America when lawlessness is becoming a thing of the past and being in an outlaw gang seems like a poor career decision. Red Dead 2 tells the story of Arthur's relationship with the gang and its fatherlike figurehead, Dutch.
I've been pouring hours upon hours into what I can confidently describe as one the most fully realized and explorable fictional worlds I've ever come across. As a whole, it's an astonishing work of art and arguably the most realistic Western simulation ever conceived. Put it this way: Red Dead 2 makes Westworld look like City Slickers. The game is available Oct. 26 for PS4 and Xbox One.
And those 45 hours have not been time wasted either. I've spent them managing my gang's camp, hunting, robbing trains, collecting bounties, deciding what to wear, chasing down debts owed, shaving, playing poker, moving camp, surviving ambushes and taking care of my horse.
And after all that -- after all of the bullets fired, lawmen outrun and rival gang members felled, the game tells me I'm only about 34 percent of the way through. Don't attempt to marathon your way through Red Dead 2, because this game will break you.
Not because it's difficult, but because the sheer magnitude of what's being introduced is nearly vertigo-inducing. It's tough to overstate just how massive it is.
It all unfolds innocently enough, in a deliberately slow fashion, forcing you to appreciate the faucet-drip pace of life in 1899. In many ways it's a true-to-life, moment-to-moment cowboy simulator, leaving out few nuances of human life.
Initially set during a paralyzing blizzard, everything feels intentionally lethargic, with a molasses-like flow to it. As things begin to crystallize, Red Dead 2 feels incomprehensibly insurmountable, like a mountain with no summit. It's much less a traditional sequel (or in this case, prequel) to 2010'sand more a meaty evolutionary successor, bringing it to a level that attempts to break the mold of formulaic open-world games that live and die through missions and side objectives. Where Red Dead 1 felt like Grand Theft Auto with horses, Red Dead 2 seems like a generational milestone.
Red Dead 2 essentially treats every "missionable" element in the game with the same amount of meaningful importance. By doing so it's able to communicate a much more seamless and cohesive overarching narrative. Eliminating the "map barf" that other open world games have grown to rely on, Red Dead 2 leans into its steady pacing and encourages players to explore and discover. And for the most part, it pays off. Red Dead 2 introduces a world that feels complex, deep and varied. It does a remarkable job at injecting a tangible weight throughout, giving purpose and consequence to nearly every action you commit.
The notion of having to complete a checklist of objectives doesn't come through in Red Dead 2. Almost nothing in the game feels repetitive or cut and pasted. Remarkably, everything feels unique.
Typically, a lot of the focus on a Rockstar game is primarily on the attention to detail and production value. But these things are so much more important in Red Dead 2 because a lot of those details have micromechanics attached to them. Forget to wear a mask while committing a crime? You're easier to identify. Haven't eaten in a long time? Your health will drain quicker. Didn't pack a warmer outfit for the night time? You're more vulnerable to the elements. Haven't cleaned your gun in a while? It won't perform to the best of its ability.
That level of detail can feel daunting. In the first dozen hours you're presented with a smattering of responsibilities that presumably require your constant attention, but it eventually becomes clear that some of these tasks don't need to be monitored that closely.
For example, your gang campground -- which acts as a home base of sorts -- needs support through donations, food supplies and ammunition refills. But if you casually check in on these metrics every time the game has you revisit the campground, odds are it won't ever be an issue. Even the hunting system, which the game spends a good deal of time teaching you early on, doesn't seem like much of a required chore.
And I suppose that's the point. Red Dead 2 isn't really meant to be played in any specific way. You can essentially do whatever you'd like, even abandon the gang for days at a time. It's not like they can text you. For a while, I became fixated on figuring out the whereabouts of a serial killer who left a gruesome scene outside my camp. A few days later I was trying to locate a supposed hidden treasure that was never recovered, using only a shady map I bought off some guy for $5.
However you decide to play, your actions will have an impact on the way people perceive you. If you're wanted in a town and its citizens recognize you, their guard goes up. The way you choose to carry yourself sends messages whether you want it to or not. A clean-shaven character seems more trustworthy than someone who hasn't bathed in a month.